Customer Service Robots: Human and Mechanical

Filed in Blog, Customer Service, Hospitality by on December 7, 2011
Customer Service Robots: Human and Mechanical

Self-service checkout counters are on the rise. Businesses are looking for new ways to trim costs and improve service, but are self-service checkout counters better or worse for customers? To me, it depends.

Unfortunately, many folks who are stationed at registers, standing behind teller windows and who respond to toll free numbers, act and think robotically. They do nothing to engage with customers and a company might as well replace them with self-service equipment.

Recently, large chain stores such as Kroger’s, Big Y and Albertson’s have begun to phase out self-service stations. They have realized that the checkout counter may be the only opportunity for a customer to interact with a company associate. So, why is this type of human interaction important? My research has shown that many people who frequent the same store (other than for convenience) do so because they have developed a relationship with one of the company associates.

You know the type of associate that makes you a loyal customer; maybe it’s Mary, whose checkout line is always longer than every other line. Why? Because Mary remembers her customers, knows when they have been on vacation, learns about their kids, and sees her customers as people first, consumers second. Mary knows her customers’ names and is interested in getting to know them so she can serve them more effectively. Maybe they didn’t realize their favorite detergent was on sale or that the deli department has a new cheese. Maybe she will notice that the bananas on the conveyor belt don’t look as fresh as they should be and suggest they pick new ones. That’s why Mary’s line is so much longer than the others; Mary does not act robotically. She is a person engaging with her customers, not a human robot.

Whenever I am forced to use a self-service checkout counter, it seems that half the time a human interaction is required. If it’s not my station that has an issue, it’s another customer’s. Then one has to wait for an employee to figure out if it’s you or the machine that’s the issue. Frequently, even the person who intercedes in the self-service encounter is robotic themselves, coming over with a magic code or key that resets the system. Of course they say nothing, or just one or two comments, leaving you to think, ‘did I do something wrong?’

In my ideal customer service world, I would always deal with a patient, engaging human instead of a machine.  A robotic machine might be a cool looking piece of equipment, but a person who makes me feel welcomed, important and appreciated will make me feel good and might even put a smile on my face when I have had a rough day. That is my preference, any day!

What’s your preference? Would you rather use a self-service checkout station or not?

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Comments (4)

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  1. Daryl Choy says:

    Rich, I couldn’t agree more with your post!

    What’s the basis of positive customer experience?
    It’s interaction with real people, not machine!
    I am not trying to undermine the power of tech.
    But experience delivered by tech won’t have long-lasting impact.

    Users are human.
    And all humans have emotions.
    I can’t imagine falling in love with robot…


    • Daryl, thanks so much for your highly thoughtful and complimentary response. I really appreciate it. Yes, technology is so wonderful when it is employed to enhance the customer experience, not take away from it. Rich

  2. Ha Daryl! I laughed at your comment about “not falling in love with a robot” You’re right though.

    Great post Rich. A long time ago I learned “all things being equal, friends buy from friends. All things not being equal friends still buy from friends.” I believe this. I’d drive to go to a specific bank branch because their service was better even though there’s one right across the street.

    With the grocery store I don’t typically talk to my cashier but I still absolutely hate self service check outs.

    • Natasha, you are absolutely correct. Friends do buy from friends and there is no reason why front-line associates can’t be your friends. That’s what business should be all about. Thanks so much for your comments and support. Rich